Neo-Paganism is a general term for a variety of related religious movements which began in the United States in the 1960’s, with literary roots going back to the mid-19th century Europe, as attempts to revive what their founders thought were the best aspects of ancient pagan ways, blended with modern humanistic, pluralistic, and inclusionary ideals, while consciously striving to eliminate certain elements of traditional Western monotheism, including dualistic thinking and puritanism. The distinguishing characteristics of Neo-Paganism include a perception of divinity as immanent, a multiplicity of deities of all genders, a commitment to environmental responsibility, and intentional ritual creation.
Neo-Pagan theology has four principal characteristics: Neo-Paganism is pantheistic; it views divinity as immanent and the material world as a theophany, a manifestation of divinity. Neo-Pagans see the earth, the body, and sexuality as sacred. Neo-Paganism is polytheistic in that it recognizes a plurality of deities or aspects of Deity. Neo-Pagans honor the divine feminine; they recognize that divinity manifests itself as masculine and feminine, while also transcending gender. Neo-Pagans see divinity as changing or evolving, as part of a process that is itself divine, sometimes symbolized by a circle or a spiral.
The Neo-Pagan belief in the interconnectedness of all things and the inherent divinity of all people and the world translates into an ethic of care and responsibility for other people and for our non-human environment. Neo-Pagans also honor the diversity of life, human and otherwise, and eschew sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of intolerance. Beyond that, Neo-Pagans embrace an ethic of freedom to satisfy individual needs and desires and pursue personal growth and happiness, while avoiding harm to others. Neo-Pagans reject any notion of a divinely prescribed law and concepts of sin or salvation.
Neo-Paganism has its roots in the 19th century Romantic movement in England and Germany which saw ancient paganism as an ideological and aesthetic counter to the influence of Western modernity and industrialism. Neo-Paganism today is a product of the American Counterculture of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Early forms of Neo-Paganism integrated nature religion and feminist spirituality the mythology of Robert Graves’ The White Goddess and Jungian psychology. Although Neo-Paganism draws inspiration from ancient religious myths and practices, it is a modern religion intended to meet modern spiritual needs.
The Neo-Pagan Mythos consists a series of allegories and stories that describe the life of the Goddess and the God in their various aspects. Some of the most common stories include: the birth of the Sun God at Midwinter, the celebration of the sexual union of Goddess and God in the spring, the battle of the Oak King and the Holly King at Midsummer, the sacrifice of the God of the harvest in the autumn, the descent of the Goddess into the underworld. These myths teach that everything is change, everything moves in cycles, and in this change there is balance between light and dark, life and death.
For Neo-Pagans, the meaning of life is not to be found in another world or a hypothetical future existence. Neo-Pagans perceive a “deeper” (as opposed to a “higher”) power, which is present in nature, in our own selves, and in the process of our lives. We seek to live in accordance with this deeper, sacred dimension. Neo-Pagans understand alienation or existential “rootlessness” in our own psyches and in our culture as the inheritance of modern humankind. We see this manifest in social injustice, patriarchalism, and neurosis. We seek to cure this alienation by reconnecting with the sacred dimension of nature and our own selves. Neo-Pagans hold these things to be sacred: all life, the earth, nature, our selves, our bodies.
Neo-Pagans may worship or honor one or more gods of ancient or contemporary paganisms or even gods of their own imagining. Often these many gods are seen as aspects or “faces” of an underlying divine unity. Often these gods fall into recognizable archetypes. Many Neo-Pagans honor an immanent Great Goddess of nature or the Earth. Often the Goddess is seen as having a triple aspect concerned with birth, procreation and death. Many Neo-Pagans also honor a dying-and-rising god of animal life or the Sun, who is split into two complementary aspects, light and dark, gods of the waxing and waning year.